08/16/2012

Scenario-based training on a budget

Challenge: providing realistic, cost-effective and valuable training inexpensively

As with everything else in a police department, your training budget is affected by the economy. It does not matter what size your agency is, if it comes down to staffing or equipment maintenance versus training; training will usually suffer a cut. It is not because your agency feels training is not important, it is because the agency needs to fulfill its primary function: providing law enforcement services to your community. My own agency faced this but we were still able to provide solid scenario based training with a little less money.

Our agency trains twice a year in active shooter response and various force on force exercises (i.e. building searches, armed intruder, and high-risk calls). The challenge was being able to provide realistic, cost effective and valuable training while keeping within a budget. Simulated live fire training can be cost prohibitive to a smaller agency.

Simulated firearms and ammunition training is great. I have done it and experienced the realism it provides. The weapons can be purchased for the same type of weapons your officers use, or conversion kits can be purchased to convert their firearms to be able to fire special ammunition. The cost for this type of equipment can be daunting for a smaller agency with a limited training budget. We just plain could not afford to do it regularly.

We considered paintball guns (markers) and have used them recently in addition to our current format but, it does have some drawbacks.Finding a venue can be a challenge for paintball. You have the choice of going to a paintball facility (indoor or outdoor) or using your own location. Paintball guns, or markers as they are called, are not cheap and do not fit in a duty holster. We have also had minor injuries associated with paintball such as bruising and dislocated fingers.

Choose Airsoft
Our greatest success in scenario based training has been accomplished using airsoft guns, and there were a variety of factors that influenced this choice. The guns themselves range from very inexpensive to very expensive, costing as much or more than an actual firearm. We decided on an airsoft brand that used “green gas” and operated semi-automatic. The weapons feel, function and look just like the weapons our officers currently carry with the exception of the orange marking on the slide around the muzzle.

The weapons are charged by filling the gas reservoir in the pistol magazine then loading the magazine with the airsoft BBs. The pistol is loaded identically to that of a real semiautomatic pistol as are all of the other weapon functions. These pistols cost a little more, but provide a level of realism in the training. The officers use their own duty belts and holsters and can even put their weapon mounted lights on the pistols.

The ammunition used are 6 mm plastic BBs. They are cheap to buy in bulk and very reliable. You should never reuse the BBs no matter what. They deform slightly on impact and although they will probably function in the airsoft gun, they can jam in the barrel and cause the weapon to be damaged. The guns do need maintenance. They need to be inspected before every use and lubricant needs to be used. We found this out the hard way when our airsoft guns began to malfunction the second time we used them in training after several months in storage. 

We used the included silicone based oil to lubricate the airsoft guns every time. The problem was in the magazines. The green gas dries out the rubber gaskets and O-rings that retain the gas in the reservoir of the magazine. This caused the gas to leak at a rate where an officer would only get two or three shots off before the gun would malfunction or cease to function at all. A little research showed us we also needed to use the oil on the magazines themselves. A drop of the oil in the area of the fill valve and another on the rubber gasket that seals against the gun itself allowed functioning and kept the gas from leaking. We have not had a problem since.

Get a Venue
Setting up our training venue was easy. Our city owns a vacant building which was made available for training. One floor of the building was a large open area which really did not lend itself to a building search. You could see the whole floor from the doorway. We used plastic sheeting with the existing columns in the room to create smaller rooms and hallways. 

The plastic sheeting had another benefit we had not even considered when we used it. It provided the very real effect of fired rounds passing through the “walls” and officers had to remain aware of their backstop and where there fellow officers were. We used 6 mil plastic sheeting that slows down the BBs quite a bit but still allows them to pass through. Two layers slowed them even more.

Try using two or three layers of 10 mil plastic to cover any windows you do not want broken. Tack the sheets at the top and hung slack seems to give the best results. Always test fire into your “walls” and window coverings before you put them into use. We have a safety limit on firing on a target of 8 feet or more during our scenarios so we fire from that distance into the sheeting we plan on using. Test fire into the window covering plastic sheets when hanging free; such as a doorway to make sure the BBs will be stopped or slowed enough to keep windows from being broken.

We kept staplers handy during the training and during breaks we could move walls and change the layout of the floor to keep the training fresh. Clean-up was easy at the end of the day. The “walls” were rolled up and stored for use on the next training day and the BBs were vacuumed up. The BBs can leave small divots in drywall.

There are special considerations for the airsoft equipment. The BBs cannot be reused. They do warp slightly after an impact and trying to feed them through again can result in the BB becoming jammed in the barrel. The good news is that they are available in bulk. We buy ours in bags of 5000 rounds and have just opened the second bag this year. Green gas is available in most sporting goods stores that sell airsoft equipment and it is a good idea to recharge the gas in the magazines after each run during the training.

The only injuries we have suffered so far have been small bruises from BB strikes, mostly to the hand. Protective gear is mandatory: a paintball mask, neck protector, vest and gloves as well as long sleeved shirts and long pants. Since the airsoft guns are almost identical to real pistols, all duty weapons are left outside the training area.

We have been using airsoft training for about 2 years now and our officers enjoy it. It provides more realism than using red/blue guns and tactics mean a lot more to them when the bad guys are actually shooting back. They are forced to use cover and tactical movement to their advantage in order to successfully resolve their scenarios and actively employ the techniques on real calls including shoot/no shoot scenes. Force on force training is necessary to develop skills in our officers and airsoft has provided a way to do this safely and inexpensively.

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